Title: Just A Little Taste Of Where I Came From (AO3 link)
Pairing: Steve+Tony friendship, implied Clint/Coulson.
Warning: includes a sick/potentially dying child, brief mentions of past torture.
Notes: With thanks to harborshore and 17pansies for alllll the betaing and to my poor twitter feed for putting up with me talking about this one endlessly. <3
This fic is based on davincis_girl's amazing and adorable art. I wasn’t going to sign up for this challenge but then I saw her beautiful drawing and had no choice! Go here to check out the full sized pieces and tell her how amazing she is!
“Why are you tapping?” Natasha asks, looking sideways at Steve. "Stop tapping."
Steve looks down at the fork in his hand and carefully stops beating it against the side of the empty bowl sitting on the table in front of him.
“Sorry,” he says and puts the fork down.
“Worried?” Clint asks from Steve’s other side. Steve doesn’t know why they’ve decided to bookend him but he’s sure they have reasons.
"No," Steve says quickly, "I'm sure they're fine." Stark and Bruce are always fine; Steve's more worried about the mayhem they may be causing while being fine.
It’s been a few hours since the Alfheim ambassador led them away to show them some technology or other and they’re not back yet. Steve might just be a little concerned. Even if Stark and Bruce lost track of time, the ambassador should have brought them back for the official state dinner that the Alfheim queen is throwing in their honour.
Thor looks up from his empty plate and frowns. "Perhaps we should go and fetch them? It would not do to scorn the meal the Alfheim people have prepared for us."
Steve would accuse him of just wanting to get down to the business of eating, but Thor is actually very good at diplomacy – much better than any of the rest of them, except maybe Natasha – and since it was his father who set up the meeting, he has a particular interest in making a good impression here.
"Yeah," Steve agrees, half-rising. He stops when Natasha touches his arm lightly and jerks her head toward the high table, where Agent Coulson is sitting, next to Queen Alfdis.
Coulson widens his eyes meaningfully when he sees that he's got Steve's attention. Not yet, he says with the briefest shake of his head and Steve subsides.
Another uncomfortable few seconds later, they hear the sound of running feet. Thor's shoulders relax, obviously thinking the best, but Steve feels his gut tense, waiting to see who's coming toward them in such a hurry.
"See, my friends, there was no reason to fear - " Thor starts, just before the door crashes open and a woman in white robes comes running in.
She drops to her knees in front of the Queen then bounces up immediately, stalking toward the Avengers' table. "You!" she snaps. "You and your people are no longer welcome here."
Steve suppresses a sigh. Of course. It was too much to expect Stark to be able to take part in a diplomatic inspection of other people’s technology without causing a scene, and Bruce is not nearly as good an influence on him as Steve secretly hoped he would be.
"Brigid?" the Queen demands, rising to her feet. "What do you mean? These warriors are our honoured guests."
"These warriors." Brigid spits the word. "Have defiled our most sacred room, Majesty. I will not have them here any longer."
"Defiled?" Clint murmurs. "Yep, that sounds like Stark."
"Shh," Steve hisses even though he privately agrees with Clint’s assessment. "Majesty," he says louder, but Coulson's already standing up, coming to stand between Brigid and the Queen. He bows carefully, exactly following the rules that Thor and his parents drilled into them before opening up the Bifrost to get them to Alfheim.
"My lady," he says, bowing again, "I don't know what's happened, but - "
"Defiled!" Brigid spits again. She seems to like that word. "Your so-called scientists entered the Vault. No one may enter the Vault without express permission from her Majesty. A permission that hasn't been granted in almost a decade and never to an outsider."
"Ah," Coulson says. He looks tired. Steve understands how he feels. "I'm afraid our scientists can be a little impetuous yes, but - "
"No." The Queen steps forward. "Agent Coulson, I'm sorry, but Brigid is right. Unauthorised entry into the Vault is a serious matter."
"Of course." Coulson nods. "I hope you'll accept our apologies and that our visit here can continue but - "
"Agent Coulson," the Queen interrupts, "I'm afraid you don't understand. Unauthorised entry into the Vault is a serious offence. I must ask you to hand over your scientists to our judicial system."
Steve's head snaps around at that and he finds the others staring back at him. Judicial system sounds bad. He'd expected this would mean the untimely end to their diplomatic visit to Alfheim, but not the untimely end to Stark and Bruce's lives. Not, he suspects, that they'd stand much chance of executing Bruce.
Stark, however, is a different matter.
"Ma'am," he starts, leaning forward. Thor leans around Clint's back and pokes Steve meaningfully in the back.
Steve stands up. "Ma'am," he repeats.
The Queen shakes her head. "I'm sorry Captain, everyone." She nods around the room. The Alfheimians present are starting to whisper rapidly. "These are our laws. A court will convene in thirty minutes. I will see you then."
She sweeps from the room with a final nod, dragging Brigid along with her, still talking quietly and rapidly.
"Shit," Clint says with feeling as soon as the door crashes closed behind them. He catches Coulson's eye and tries a smile. "Good first mission back, sir?"
Coulson sighs. "Everything I was hoping for, Barton," he assures him wryly.
They're led to an ante-room not long after where they find Bruce and Stark already waiting for them. It's a comfortable room, hardly a jail cell, but Bruce, at least, doesn't look comfortable. He's sitting perched on the edge of a wide, soft-looking sofa, hands curled around his kneecaps, muttering to himself under his breath.
Stark, of course, is slouched back in the opposite chair, one ankle resting on a knee as though he hasn't got a care in the world. Steve thinks he might be humming.
"What the hell?" Steve demands, storming over to stand between them so he can include them both in his disappointed stare. "What happened?"
Stark shrugs. "They told us to look around, we looked around."
"Through three locked doors and two security points," Bruce mutters.
Stark sticks his tongue out at him and Steve feels his already-fractured calm shatter. "Stark!" he snaps. "Can’t you take anything seriously? This is a real problem."
"Eh." Stark waves a hand. "They'll rant and rave a bit, sure, but what are they going to do? They invited us here because we're the Mighty Warriors of Midgard; they're not going to fuck up their relationship with SHIELD by
stringing us up or whatever."
Steve stares at him for a minute then turns away. "I can't talk to him, sir," he tells Coulson apologetically.
Coulson shakes his head. "I never can," he agrees. Up close, Steve can see that he's definitely looking tired, a little grey around the mouth.
This mission wasn't supposed to be stressful; Steve isn't sure the SHIELD doctors would have cleared Coulson to come with them if they'd known he was going to be doing more than eating dinner and making nice.
"It's going to be fine," Stark repeats. Steve can't tell if he means that or not. Steve bets that he just doesn't think anything can touch him.
"It probably isn’t," Bruce mutters.
Steve looks over at Thor who's talking quietly to Natasha. They both look grim. Steve has never known anything to happen that's caused Thor to look that grim before, not even when they were facing thousands of murderous aliens together; he doesn't think that's a good sign.
"Coulson," Natasha says sharply after another minute and Coulson steps over to them, leaning in. After a second, Clint slips into the huddle, hand on Coulson's shoulder while he leans in.
Steve should probably be over there too, listening to whatever Thor has to say. Instead, he sits next to Bruce and bumps their knees together awkwardly. "You doing okay?" he asks.
"Um." Bruce tap-taps his fingers. "If anyone tries to execute me, the Other Guy probably won't like that."
"Yeah," Steve agrees. "For once, I wouldn't be sorry to see him."
Bruce smiles carefully. "I won’t be sorry not to die, no, but I don't want to hurt anyone."
Steve doesn't tell him that he's a good man, because Steve never knows what to do with the anger he feels when people say that to him and he doesn’t know if Bruce feels the same. Instead, he pats Bruce on the shoulder and decides it's time to be a leader and find out what inside information Thor is giving out. If it's bad news, they'll come up with a Plan B. Steve's good at that.
Before he can do more than stand up, however, the door opens and the Queen herself steps inside.
"Majesty," Thor says, standing up straight. Steve echoes him even though it's the last thing he wants to do.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," she says, eyes sweeping around the room. "The jury have made their decision."
"Wait, what?" Steve demands. "They haven't had a chance to defend themselves."
The Queen frowns at him. "No," she says slowly as though she doesn't understand his point. "The sentence will be carried out at first light."
Coulson steps forward. "What's the sentence?" he asks.
For the first time, the Queen looks less than certain. "There's still some debate around the most fitting punishment." She smiles, just barely. "In the spirit of our newfound friendship, I can assure you that they will survive."
"I'm sorry," Coulson says before Steve can, "but I don't find that even slightly reassuring."
The Queen inclines her head. "We will come for Dr Banner and Mr Stark in the morning. Please do make yourselves comfortable for the night."
She turns and strides out, long cloak and long hair disappearing around the edge of the door before anyone can decide on the best way to stop her. The door closes with a soft click followed by the much louder and more ominous clang of a heavy-sounding lock.
"Well, I'm reassured," Stark says. "Really, Phil, you need to lighten up. They're not gonna kills us, just like I said."
"There are a hell of a lot of things they can do to you that won't involve killing you," Steve says, rounding on him. He can’t believe Stark doesn't realise he's going to be tortured or that he's going to be the reason that Bruce is tortured.
"Do you honestly think I don't know that?" Stark snaps, sitting up straight for a second before he realises what he's doing and slouches again.
Steve almost, almost feels guilty. It’s true that Stark has been tortured before, but you would have thought that'd make him more careful in the future, not less.
"Thor," Coulson says suddenly. "You understand these people's customs, don't you?"
"I… have some understanding," Thor agrees. "Our mother made sure we would not offend our allies through ignorance. Although I must confess that Loki paid greater attention to those lessons than I."
"Well, sure," Clint mutters, "he was probably plotting a coup at the time."
"Barton," Coulson says firmly when Thor's expression flickers somewhere between hurt and annoyed. "Will you sit down and shut up, please. Thor, we need to work out a way around this."
"Honest, Coulson, it's fine," Stark protests. He's pulled out his cell phone and is fiddling with the screen even though even he can’t possibly have signal on another planet. (Steve rarely has signal outside Midtown, which Clint says is his own fault for picking AT&T but Steve liked their logo and it's not like he really has anyone he can ask for advice about stupid things like that. Not without putting up with endless grandpa jokes, anyway.)
"You, shut up," Coulson tells him. "You too, Barton."
Clint makes exaggeratedly wide eyes at Coulson's back. "I didn't say a word, sir."
Coulson doesn't turn around, just folds down somewhat stiffly beside Thor and pulls an electronic tablet out of his jacket pocket, setting it across his knees as though he's going to take notes on whatever Thor tells him.
"You were going to suggest breaking out of here," Coulson tells Clint easily. "That would be a mistake considering we're not even in the right dimension right now. We have no safehouses, no evac plan, no nothing."
Clint opens his mouth then closes it. He sinks back against the wall beside Natasha, looking dejected. She pats his arm and then nods sharply toward Coulson's back.
Clint shakes his head then shakes it firmer when Natasha frowns at him.
Steve looks away. He never understands their silent conversations and watching them always makes him miss Bucky even more fiercely than normal.
He has no idea what time it is back home, but he's exhausted suddenly. He trusts in Coulson's diplomacy skills, much more than he does his own, but doing nothing doesn't sit right in his brain.
"Sorry," Bruce says softly, rubbing the bridge of his nose.
Steve shrugs. It's not okay but he also suspects it's mostly not Bruce's fault. "Will you teach me that yoga thing you do?" he asks. It's going to be a long night and both he and Bruce could do with being calm for whatever the morning brings.
As promised, the Queen and a bunch of her equerries arrive just after dawn. The Queen has changed into heavy black robes, which Steve doesn’t think is a good sign. No one looks as though they slept, which is fair since none of Steve's team did either.
"We have to stop this," Steve mutters to Coulson, scanning for escape routes and weak links while the Queen and her court are arranging themselves around the room.
Coulson shakes his head. “We’re on their planet, we have to abide by their rules unless we’re prepared to start a war,” Coulson says tiredly. Steve would feel angrier with the bureaucracy of that sentence if he didn’t know that Coulson's tired because he was up all night trying to find a loophole.
“Hey, they said no death or permanent injury, right?” Bruce says. He’s trying to look nonchalant but Steve can see the worry he’s trying to hide.
"The sentence has been decided," the Queen says formally. "Dr Banner, Mr Stark."
"Wait," Stark says, standing up and surprising Steve who'd assumed he'd fallen into some kind of blasé coma. "It was my idea to investigate your damn Vault. There's no need to take any of this out of Bruce."
"Tony," Bruce protests. "I don't - "
Stark makes a cutting motion through the air at him. "Trust me," he says, still talking to the Queen. "You don't want to punish him. You won't like him when he's… what, tortured?"
The Queen looks at him levelly. "Very well," she says mildly. "We are aware of Dr Banner's unique physiology. We will accept a volunteer to take his place."
"I vol-" Steve doesn't even get the second syllable all the way out before Coulson is stepping forward.
“I’m leading this expedition,” he says, “Dr Banner is my responsibility so I accept his punishment.”
“What the hell?” Steve asks, stepping up to his side. It’s lost in the general movement of everyone doing the same so it’s almost as though no one has moved at all.
The Queen smiles at Coulson. It's a calculating smile but not necessarily a cruel one. "That is good enough for me," she agrees.
Coulson nods smartly, back straight. Steve doesn't know him as well as he'd like to, not even now he's been given a second chance to learn, but he watched Coulson fight his way through physiotherapy and back to work and he knows that this is Coulson's superpower, this powerful streak of bravery that he hides under suits and regulations.
“Phil,” Clint says and Coulson falters for the first time. It’s barely noticeable but Steve sees it. Clint shakes his head. “Don’t.”
“It’ll be fine,” Coulson says quietly. He reaches out and touches the back of Clint's hand, a barely there brush of fingertips that Steve realises too late that he should have looked away from.
"Are you ready?" the Queen asks.
Stark and Coulson glance at each other. "Yeah, sure," Stark says. "Bring it on."
"This isn't right," Natasha says into the silence that follows. "We shouldn't have let them be taken."
"It was Coulson's decision," Steve says heavily even though he agrees, he definitely agrees. His skin is crawling with the wrongness of having just let two of his soldiers walk into torture. Or worse.
"Bullshit," Clint snaps but doesn't say anything else, sinking down onto the floor beside Thor and closing his eyes. Steve’s seen him do that before, close his eyes and go into his own head, like that’ll take him away from the situation at hand.
"Captain Rogers is correct," Thor says firmly. "We are already risking war with Alfheim by disobeying their sacred rules, to fight them in this would almost guarantee it."
"Are they so powerful?" Steve asks. Not that he's considering going to war for two men. Well, he's considering it. He'd do it. But he won't risk the Earth for it.
"Yes," Thor says simply and that's that. Steve’s never seen Thor run or flinch from a fight, not even when he was facing the Hulk. It makes him wonder exactly how powerful the Alfheim must be.
For a long time, there's nothing but silence.
If he's honest, he wasn't expecting silence; he was braced for screams. Silence ought to be better, but Steve’s not sure how to react.
He’s never been a fan of silence. A long time ago, silence meant that he couldn't hear his mother's rattling, uneven breathing anymore and, more recently, it meant the inescapable endlessness of the ice.
He doesn't realise he's straining his ears until he picks up a faint sound, growing louder as he listens. "What's that?" he asks, sitting up straighter.
“Is that crying?” Bruce asks, sounding horrified. Steve feels his heart freeze cold with dread. He can’t think of one thing horrific enough to make either Coulson or Stark cry.
“I’ve had enough of this,” Natasha says, springing up from her chair and marching to the door.
She only gets to give one good, satisfying-looking kick to the handle before it’s opened from the outside and one of the equerries from earlier comes walking in.
He’s leading two little boys, which is odd enough that it stops Natasha in her tracks. He’s holding their hands but they don’t look happy about it, straining against his grip. They’re both dark haired and very young, no more than four or five. Their clothes are falling off them and –
Steve stares at the adult sized t-shirt that the smaller of the two boys is wearing. It’s familiar. In fact, it’s very familiar.
“Why is that kid wearing Tony’s shirt?” Bruce asks, perfectly echoing Steve’s thoughts.
“Why is the other one wearing Coulson’s tie?” Clint counters, springing up. “What have you done with them?” he snaps at the equerry.
Steve looks away from the kid in Stark’s shirt and realises that Clint’s right; the other boy is wearing a long white shirt and no pants; Coulson’s thin black tie looks completely ridiculous hanging down to his knees.
"Oh," Thor says slowly, "I see." He starts to smile. "That is the punishment? Why did you not say?"
The equerry shrugs. "Tradition," he says. He looks relieved that Thor understands. Steve wishes that he understood.
"Thor?" he asks, turning to him.
Thor's smile widens. "All is well, Captain," he says, striding forward. "Our friends are unharmed. They are merely - " He waves his hands at the children. "Well, you can see for yourself."
Steve stares at Thor. Then down at the children. It isn't that he doesn't understand what Thor is saying; it's just that he's sure that isn't possible.
"Are you saying that those kids are Coulson and Stark?" Natasha demands. Steve is so glad that someone other than him asked that question.
Thor nods encouragingly. "I am. Is that not a relief?"
"Um," Clint says. He sounds as though he's going to freak out any second. "No?"
The kids are staring up at them, looking from one to the other of them with wide, confused eyes. The one who might be Coulson has damp patches on his cheeks and other one keeps sniffling then pretending he isn't.
"Tony?" Steve asks cautiously, leaning forward. Apparently he didn't sound cautious enough because the kid sticks his chin up and folds his arms tightly, bony elbows sticking out from his too-big sleeves.
"I don't know who you are," he says. His voice is tiny but very firm. "How do you know my name?"
Steve looks up at the others, feeling closer to panic than he's comfortable with. Natasha looks horrified; Clint is just staring at the child who must be Coulson.
"I know your dad," Steve tries. "I know Howard."
Tony doesn't look reassured. "Everyone knows my dad," he mutters. He turns his glare up at the equerry. "Let go of me."
The equerry does so, looking glad, and Tony scuttles a couple of steps away from them all quickly. Coulson stays where he is, staring up at Steve.
"Hey there," Steve tries because if this really is Coulson then he's got to be easier to deal with than a miniaturised Stark. "Phil?"
"Phillip," he says in a barely-there voice, still staring at Steve, unblinking. His cheeks go pink. "But. You can call me Phil if you want to."
Natasha laughs, sounding strangled about it. "Chyort. Oh yeah, that's definitely him."
Steve feels himself blush in sympathy with Phil. He never knows how to react to the disbelieving way that the adult Coulson stares at him sometimes, and it's somehow even weirder to see it on the face of a little kid.
"I'm Steve," Steve tries, but it's no good. He's in full uniform - even if it's horrifically crumpled right now - Phil definitely knows who else he is.
Phil takes two determined steps closer and tugs carefully on Steve's sleeve. “Are you really Captain America?” he whispers, still tugging.
Steve doesn’t know what to do other than kneel down beside him. “I am,” he says seriously.
Tony rolls his eyes and huffs, deigning to come close enough to lean around Steve’s leg to poke Coulson’s arm. “Of course he’s not,” he scoffs, “no one knows where Captain America is.”
Phil's blue eyes widen and he folds his arms across his chest, glaring down at where Stark poked him. “That’s not true,” he protests. He sounds like he’s trying not to sound upset and Steve sighs.
“Thor,” he says, without raising his voice, “can you pass me my shield?”
The careful way that Thor handles the shield would make Steve smile under any other circumstances. He appreciates the thought, but not even Thor’s hammer could make a dent in it, so he doubts Thor can scratch it through overzealous passing.
“Here,” Steve says, propping the shield up against his knees so it’s facing the kids. “If I weren’t Captain American, how could I have his shield?”
“Oh wow,” Phil breathes, holding out his hand then snatching it back.
“You can touch,” Steve tells him so Phil does, eyes huge and shining, tiny fingers careful and reverent.
Clint makes a rough noise in his throat. “I’m going to see if I can find out what the fuck's going on,” he says, not looking at anyone, and walks out.
Natasha looks after him, swears again, and follows him out the room.
“A month?” Steve asks, staring at Clint in horror. “You can’t be serious.”
Clint's mouth twitches slightly into that smile-not-a-smile he often wears when things are going to hell.
"That's what they told us," Natasha agrees, folding her arms and stepping up beside Clint. She tips her head. "And I really doubt they were lying." Steve decides not to ask exactly how they got their information. “Apparently it’s a standard punishment for ‘immature behaviour."
Clint scoffs. “Which is bullshit because Coulson has never been immature in his life. Hell, he isn’t immature now and he’s five.”
“Six, I think,” Bruce says thoughtfully. He’s been studying both the children quizzically where they’re playing separately in the other half of the room. “Tony's a year or so younger, maybe.”
Steve does some quick mental math. “That makes sense. Stark’s forty-two, right, and Coulson is, what, fifty?”
“Forty-eight,” Clint says then shrugs when Steve looks at him, about to say thank you for the information until he notices all the keep-away vibes Clint is giving off.
“Is this very unusual on your world?” Thor asks, standing next to Bruce to watch the kids alongside him. “I know that magic is less common on Earth, but has this never happened before?”
He has the same look on his face that Stark gets – got? – when Steve once again reminds him that there were no cell phones in the 1940s, like he understands intellectually, but is very sad for them all the same.
“Does it happen a lot on Asgard?” Steve asks, curious.
“Well.” Thor shrugs. “Growing up with my brother, it is sometimes hard to define what was usual for us and what was usual on our world. But, yes, Loki often changed age, shape, and gender.”
“Gender?” Bruce asks, looking up. “How does that work, does he—“
“Who cares,” Clint snaps. “Let’s not drag Loki into this shit show of a situation and make it even worse.”
"It is too bad he cannot be trusted to help,” Thor agrees softly.
Clint stares at him but it's Natasha who says, "Tell me you're joking."
Thor looks back at them steadily. "Loki understands magic. If there's a way to get Phil and Tony back without waiting a month - "
"No," Clint says firmly. He folds his arms. "No," he repeats when Thor opens his mouth, presumably to protest. "You're not letting Loki anywhere near Coulson, okay?"
His mouth is fixed, stubborn, but his eyes look terrified.
"Okay," Steve echoes, nodding slowly. "All right." He rubs his hands together, trying to think of something reassuring to say. He's the team leader; he needs to be prepared to lead the team in the face of anything. Even this. "Anyone else got any ideas?"
"I could speak to my mother," Thor offers. "She knows almost as much magic as Loki and she is much more likely to help us." He smiles slightly. "Without attempting to kill us."
"Always a plus," Steve agrees and smiles back encouragingly.
“Um, guys,” Bruce says, turning around from where he's been watching Phil and Tony. “I think there’s about to be a meltdown.”
Steve bounds over to him, shouldering his way carefully between him and Thor to see what's happening.
Tony is standing on one side of the room, what looks like a computer tablet clutched in his hand. It's split down the middle, case cracked, and he's staring down at it like the end of the world.
From the other side of the room, Phil is saying something but Steve can't hear what. He looks tentative but he takes a step forward, reaching out to touch Tony's arm. Tony throws the broken tablet at him and Steve decides now's the time to interrupt.
"Stay here," he says and strides forward. Once he reaches the kids, he doesn't know why he told the others not to follow him. They all listened though, and so he finds himself facing a furiously angry miniature Tony Stark and a startled and hurt Phil Coulson alone.
"Tony!" Steve snaps. His tone reminds him of Bucky's mom when they were disobedient enough to really shock her. "What are you doing?"
Tony drops down to sit on the floor, somehow managing to look petulant with his legs and arms crossed.
Steve ignores him for now. He isn't comfortable with Stark as an adult, let alone as a child, so he decides to deal with Phil first.
"Are you okay?" he asks, gently tugging Phil's hand away from his cheek.
There's a dark pink mark on his cheek but Phil still nods. "I'm okay," he promises, lower lip wobbling. "I'm fine."
Steve doesn't think, just reaches out and tugs Phil into his side, hand firm on Phil's narrow shoulder. He's seen fathers treat their sons that way and Phil certainly isn't his son, but Steve doesn't know what else to do.
"Tony, you need to apologise," he says firmly. "Phil was trying to make you feel better."
"He's stupid," Tony mutters.
Steve sighs. He spent a lot of the war kissing babies but he has no idea how to deal with kids this age. Especially not kids this age who are also Tony Stark.
"That isn't nice," he settles on even though he can hear the adult Stark in his head, mocking him for it. "You wouldn't treat your friends this way, would you?"
"I don't have friends," Tony says, rolling his eyes. "I have bodyguards."
Steve has no idea what to say to that. He watches Phil open his mouth then close it again. "You don't have friends because you're mean," he finally settles on.
"I don't have friends because they're stupid," Tony snaps back. He sticks his tongue out at Phil.
After a moment's hesitation, Phil's tongue comes out too.
Steve rubs his face and swallows back a groan. This is going to be a long month.
Now that punishment has been successfully meted out, the Queen seems perfectly happy to open the Bifrost.
Steve isn't sure if that's a good thing or not; he can't decide if they should take Phil and Tony back to Earth where they might be able to fix them quicker, or keep them here, where the Alfheimians can be on call if anything goes wrong.
Luckily, Steve doesn't have to make that decision alone, because Fury comes striding onto Alfheim as soon as he gets their distress call.
He stops when he sees Phil and Tony and stares, closing his eyes briefly.
"Motherfucker," he sighs and then looks genuinely startled when Steve can't help but say, "Please don't swear in front of the children, sir."
"Captain Steve?" Phil asks, sliding close to Steve. He's holding onto Tony's wrist, tugging him along to stand behind Steve.
Tony looks put out at being dragged around but he doesn't actually object. Steve guesses that Fury, in his heavy black coat and angry eyepatch, cuts a pretty damn imposing figure when you're three and a half feet tall.
"It's okay," Steve tells them. He seems to be saying that a lot lately. He feels a hand clutch at the knee of his pants but doesn't look down to see whose it is. Instead he meets Fury's eye and raises his eyebrows. “What should we do, sir?”
"You can’t take them back to earth like this, it’ll be chaos.” Fury sighs. “I'll have your things shipped out here and get someone to buy some kid-sized clothes," He shakes his head. "Seriously, this was supposed to be an easy mission."
"We're still welcome on Alfheim," Natasha offers with a shrug. "It's better than the Tallinn mission."
"Or the Marrakech assignment," Clint adds.
Fury nods thoughtfully. "Thank you both. You've successfully reminded me why letting the two of you go anywhere with Coulson is a mistake."
Natasha rolls her eyes and Clint looks a bit hurt for a split-second. Steve has to remember to reassure them later that Fury might technically be in charge of them, but Steve won’t let him reassign Coulson to anyone else.
Phil pokes Steve in the thigh at the mention of his name.
"Not you," Steve says automatically, only realising after he's said that that's obviously a lie. At this age, Phil is strangely guileless and Steve finds it hard to think of him as Agent Coulson, much harder than it is to reconcile Tony with Stark.
Fury half-smiles at Phil. It's an unnerving expression to Steve but Phil just blinks.
"Right." Fury clears his throat. "Dr Banner, I want you back at SHIELD trying to work out a way to reverse this quicker. Thor, you’ll talk to your parents?"
Thor salutes with a clenched fist. Bruce shrugs, looking uncertainly toward Tony. He’s by far the best at dealing Tony as a child, just like he’s the best at getting through to Tony as an adult, but he also has the best chance at finding a solution to their current situation. So he has to go, no matter how much Steve wants him to stay.
"I'll go with you, Bruce," Natasha says, “Someone needs to let Pepper know what’s going on.” She doesn't make it a question and no one objects even though Clint doesn't look happy.
"Clint?" Steve asks. "You'll stay with me, right?"
"I." Clint frowns. "I'm gonna be less than no help, Cap."
"I'm sure that's not true," Steve tells him. He's seen the way Clint looks at Phil (and the way that he looked at Coulson before he was six years old) and he knows that Clint needs to be here.
"Good, that's settled then." Fury claps his hands together. "I'm leaving, call me if you need anything." He looks at the kids again and shakes his head. "Too fucking weird," he decides before walking off.
Bruce raises his eyebrows then stands up. "Do you think we're just supposed to follow him?" he asks Natasha.
Natasha smiles at him. "We're supposed to beat him to the Bifrost," she tells him. She holds out her hand, wrapping it around his wrist. "Come on, I know a shortcut."
"Um." Bruce looks down at her hand around his wrist and uses his other hand to gather together all his stuff. "Sure. Goodbye everyone, be good." He grins at Tony, suddenly. "You be good for the Captain."
Tony smiles, ducking his head. It's amazing how different he looks without the surly frown on his face. "No," he says, but it's sweeter than anything else Steve has heard him say today.
"Bye?" Phil says, waving and Natasha's face does something complicated that Steve still doesn't know her well enough to parse.
"Take care of him," she tells Clint, low and firm like an order and then she and Bruce are gone.
Thor pats Steve on the shoulder. "I too must be going," he declares and then is, in fact, gone.
Steve blinks, looks at the kids who are interacting without bickering for the first time, and then over at Clint.
He wants to ask What now? but Clint looks panicked and Steve doesn't want him to know that Steve is just as lost.
"All right," Steve says firmly. He takes hold of one of each of their shoulders. "Who wants to pick a bedroom?"
“Where’s Jarvis?” Tony asks, rubbing his eye on his drawn up knees.
It's the middle of the evening and Steve has already run out of things to entertain the kids with. Luckily, they're getting kind of droopy so he's hoping they'll want to go to bed soon.
“JARVIS?” Steve asks, surprised. He’d gotten the impression that Tony was the one who built JARVIS, not Howard, and he’s sure that even Tony wasn’t brilliant enough to manage that before he was five years old.
Tony nods. “He normally looks after me when Mommy and Dad can’t. Is he coming to get me soon? I’m tired.”
Okay, not the AI, Steve thinks. Did Tony name JARVIS after an actual person? He looks up at Clint, who's curled up strategically in the opposite window, keeping a close eye on the castle’s central quad. Clint shrugs.
“We’re kind of far away from home right now,” Steve hedges. “You don’t mind staying here with us, do you? We picked you out a room, remember?”
Tony tips his head, squinting. “For how long?”
Less than a month, Steve prays, please, God, let it be less than a month. “Not too long. Do you miss your mom?” Come to think of it, Tony hasn't asked for his parents once, unlike Phil.
Tony shrugs. “No?” he says, flicking his eyes up at Steve distrustfully. Something about Tony feeling suspicious that someone thinks he might miss his mother makes Steve desperately sad.
Even Steve falls asleep easily that evening. Steve hasn't needed a lot of sleep since the serum, but apparently looking after a couple of kids for most of the day is more exhausting than fighting Nazis.
He wakes with a start in the dead of night, listening carefully to see what woke him.
He can hear someone breathing and he's already reaching for the pistol on his nightstand before he registers that the breathing is too fast and too loud for a would-be assassin.
Reaching over, Steve activates the odd glowing light beside the bed that serves as the Alfheimian version of a night-light and squints through the dark. Phil is sitting on the end of his bed, watching him sleep.
“Hi?” Steve asks, trying not to sound too startled. Phil has a very focused stare.
Phil doesn’t say anything. He’s wearing a hoodie that’s far too big for him, half his face buried in the folds of the collar. All day, Phil has given the impression of being pretty mature for his age. Right now, though, he looks genuinely, heartbreakingly young.
“Phil?” Steve asks gently, moving around to sit up and move closer to him. “Are you okay? Did you have a bad dream?”
Phil shakes his head. “I can’t sleep,” he says. His voice sounds thin and, even in the dim light, it’s easy to see that his eyelashes are clumped together in damp, dark spikes.
Steve would have no problem with giving Phil a hug right now, but even at six years , Phil is very careful and staid; Steve doesn’t think he’d appreciate it very much.
“Something’s wrong, isn’t it?” Phil asks, looking at Steve over the top of his knees. “That’s why Tony and me are here?”
“Aren’t you having a good time with us?” Steve asks. He asked Tony that a few times this afternoon, just to check that he wasn't traumatising them in any way, and Tony had grudgingly admitted that he wasn’t having a terrible time. But Phil just gives him a Look and it’s never been more obvious that there’s a big difference between four and six.
“I miss my mom,” Phil says quietly. “Is she okay?”
“Your mom?” Steve asks, stalling. “Why wouldn't she be?”
Phil bites his bottom lip. “She does secret things,” he whispers. “Daddy cries sometimes when she goes away. Don’t tell.”
Steve wonders if Phil’s mom worked for SHIELD, if SHIELD even existed in the 1960s when Phil was a kid.
“Of course I won’t tell,” Steve says grandly, “I’m Captain America.”
Phil smiles, looking a little happier. “My mom’s okay?”
“You being here has nothing to do with your mom,” Steve promises. It is, after all, perfectly true. "You and Tony are just here because… because." He stops. He really doesn't want to lie to anyone.
"Have we been kidnapped by Baron Von Struker?" Phil asks, dropping his voice into a not-very-successful whisper.
"Who?" Steve asks. A few barons have kidnapped him in his time, but not that one, as far as he knows.
Phil sits up straight, worries apparently put to one side for now. "You fight him sometimes," he tells Steve. "I read about it."
"Oh, right." One day, Steve is going to have to make himself read all the comic books that were written about him while he was iced. Not quite yet though; it's still too strange to think about his fictional self living on while Steve himself lost decades.
He decides that he's going to have to trust Phil with part of the truth. "No, no one's kidnapped us. What happened was that a couple of the guys on my team - "
"The Avengers?" Phil cuts in.
Steve grins. "The Avengers," he agrees solemnly. "Two of our scientists got a little overenthusiastic and touched some things they shouldn't have. So we have to stay here until the people who live here decide to forgive us."
Phil frowns. "Did they break anything?" he asks.
Steve shakes his head. "No."
"Huh." Phil chews on his lower lip for a minute, thinking. "That's not fair, then. If they didn't break anything and they didn't mean to." He leans forward, looking at Steve seriously. "Do you want me to tell them that they're not being fair?"
Steve has a lot of experience keeping a straight face in difficult situations. Right now, he's too busy being unexpectedly charmed to even think of laughing at the thought of Phil marching up to the very formal people of Alfheim and telling them off.
"Maybe tomorrow," he tells Phil. He scoots back in bed and pats the space on his right. "How about, right now, you come lie down and tell me about Baron Von Whatsit."
"Struker," Phil says. He crawls up the bed and only hesitates briefly before climbing into bed beside Steve and rolling over onto his stomach, propping himself up on his elbows. "Do you want me to tell you how you first met him?"
Steve folds his hands behind his head and looks up at the ceiling. "Sure."
"Captain Steve?" Steve hears and blinks himself awake, slower than he normally does. He’s exhausted, even more than normal, and for a second he can’t work out why.
Yesterday comes crashing back in when he opens his eyes and sees Phil, kneeling on the bed and staring down at him with narrowed, worried eyes.
Distantly, Steve can hear the memory of a yell echoing in his ears and realises that he must have been yelling in his sleep. That happens more often than not.
"Sorry," he says, sitting up and rubbing his face. His head feels heavy but he can't remember the last time he woke up feeling refreshed and he's learned to shake it off by now. "Did I wake you up?"
Phil shakes his head quickly, but he's wide-eyed and still flushed with sleep so Steve suspects he's just lying to be nice.
"I have bad dreams sometimes," Steve confesses, the first time he's said it out loud. "But I'm fine."
"Yeah?" Phil asks. "My dad does too. He used to be a soldier."
It's light in the room and a quick glance his wristwatch shows Steve that it's nearly six a.m.
"Do you want breakfast?" he asks. "Or we can go back to sleep, if you want?"
"Breakfast, please," Phil says immediately. He hesitates then asks, "Tony, too?"
Steve thinks about the tired, probably grouchy, four-year old they'll end up with if they wake Stark up before he’s ready, and shakes his head. "No. How about we make it an adventure, just you and me?"
Phil lights up, which lets Steve push down on the feeling of guilt he gets for excluding Tony. He’ll do better later. Once he's found food.
They bump into an equerry as soon as they step out into the hall - Steve is fairly sure she was there guarding the room all night. He’s insulted to be put under guard on what was supposed to be a diplomatic mission, but at least they’re being obvious about it. It’s much easier to deal with surveillance when you know it’s there.
"We were looking for breakfast?" Steve asks her, politely. He reaches for Phil's hand to make sure that he stays close to Steve's side.
"Of course," she says, bowing her head. "Follow me."
She leads them quickly down the corridor and around a corner, through a maze of twists and turns, which Steve automatically commits to memory just in case.
"Through here," she says and bows them into a grand dining room where there’s a long central table laid with all sorts of breads and pastries and golden jugs of sweet-smelling juices.
The Queen isn't there and neither are any of dignitaries that Steve recognises, but dotted around the room are groups of finely dressed men and women, who look up and nod their heads when Steve and Phil come inside.
Phil squeezes Steve's hand. "I haven't brushed my teeth," he whispers, sounding worried.
Steve smiles at him even though he's feeling a little self-conscious about his sweatpants and lack of shower time. "Neither have I," he whispers back.
The foods on offer for breakfast are fantastic. Steve and Phil eat their way through a vast collection of unidentifiable food – sweet breads dripping with a sticky plum-like sauce; blue and purple striped meat smeared with some kind of garlic - and Steve discovers that the coffee on offer is strong enough that even he can feel the caffeine, while Phil more or less moves into a jug of peach-like juice.
They've been there nearly an hour, chatting about the things that interest six-year-olds - and, if Steve's honest with himself, twenty-six-year-olds as well - when Phil looks over at the door and sits up straight.
"Hi, Mr Barton," he calls, waving.
Clint's eyes land on Phil and Steve wouldn't have said he looked tense before, but Clint’s shoulders definitely unclench when he sees Phil.
"Hey," he says to Steve, coming over to their table. "Captain." He takes a slow breath. "Man, can you leave a note next time you take one of the kids out of their room?"
"Sorry," Steve says automatically, feeling guilty when he realises he didn't even think about how worried Clint would be to find one of the kids gone. "Phil couldn't sleep so he bunked with me last night."
"Oh." Clint's face doesn't twitch. "Sure. Right." He steps back, eyes fixed on some point between them that doesn't land on either of them. "I'm going to go get Tony. He probably wants breakfast too."
There's nothing pointed about his tone but Steve still feels like it’s a criticism.
"Thank you," Steve calls after him but Clint doesn't react.
They’re not exactly prisoners, but they don’t have their run of the castle, so the four of them retreat back to their rooms after breakfast.
Fury snuck a couple of comic books into the bag he sent over for Phil so Phil and Tony manage to sit down side-by-side to read it, without too much jostling for position.
While they’re preoccupied, Clint sidles up to Steve.
"Look, man, I'm sorry about this morning," Clint says. He looks awkward and worried, a cloak of stress clinging to him and weighing him down.
Steve shakes his head quickly. "No, my fault. I should have thought. Of course you’d be worried about Phil." It’s none of Steve’s business what exactly Agent Coulson is to Clint, but it’s clear that there’s something important there.
"You know," Clint says, ignoring Steve’s comment, folding his arms casually, "I'm kind of surprised you're avoiding baby Stark. Isn't this the perfect opportunity to find out what makes him tick? Maybe then you could stop him being such a dick when he's an adult again."
"That's not the right way to talk about a teammate," Steve says. He’s not avoiding Tony. He’s not. That would be awful.
Clint holds up his hands. "Hey," he says, "I like Stark. You're the one who doesn't."
"Of course I do," Steve protests. He does. Well, he likes parts of Stark; he just doesn't like the front Stark puts up between himself and the world. And, if he's honest with himself, he doesn't like the way Stark doesn't like him.
Clint tips his head over to where Tony is sitting in the middle of the room, drawing something complicated-looking with a handful of crayons. He doesn't say prove it but his lack of expression more or less shouts it.
Steve isn't someone who's easily swayed into doing things he doesn't want to do, but years and years with Bucky as a best friend left him basically unable to resist a dare.
"Hey, Tony?" he says, turning around sharply and heading over to him.
Across the room, Phil looks over at him, but doesn't say anything when Steve squats down next to Tony.
"Yes?" Tony asks, expression an exact mirror of the one his adult self wears when someone interrupts him mid-experiment.
"What are you doing?" Steve asks, nodding at the multi-coloured scribbles on the page.
Tony squirms around, going from sitting up to lying down on his stomach, elbow planted firmly on the edge of his paper and forearm blocking most of the page from Steve's view.
"Nothing," he says firmly.
Steve can't suppress a sigh. "Tony. I'm not going to stop you doing whatever you're doing, I'm just interested."
"You’re totally going to stop me," Tony tells him firmly, which makes Steve start to worry about exactly what it is that Tony's doing. “Captain America always stops people doing anything fun.”
"He's planning how to escape and run away back home," Phil says, still looking down at his comic book.
Tony's eyes go wide and betrayed. "Sneak!" he yells, standing up and making as though to stride over to confront Phil.
Steve catches him around the middle before he can go anywhere and tugs him back down. "You want to run away?" he asks, worried.
Tony huffs and doesn't answer.
"It was a stupid plan," Phil says into the silence. "I'm allowed to tattle when you try to make a stupid plan."
"Why do you want to get away?" Steve asks, worrying that they've accidentally been doing something terrible to Tony or forgetting something vital or -
Basically, he worries.
Tony doesn't answer.
"I ran away from home once," Steve offers.
Tony looks at him but doesn't ask.
"Ask him why," Phil hisses.
Tony glares at him.
"It doesn't matter why," Steve tells them, because he isn't going to explain about growing up dirt poor in the 1920s and honestly believing at age seven that he could go west and make the kind of fortune that would buy his mom the best doctors in the world. "It wasn't a lot of fun. It rained and I got cold and hungry and I missed my mom a lot."
"I'm not running away from my mom," Tony says haughtily. "I'm running away to - " He stops talking, actually claps a hand over his mouth. Steve tries not to smile; it’s nice to see that this Tony is far less artless and easier to read. Clint was right about that: Steve might learn something about adult Tony from all of this.
Steve never met Maria Stark, although he'd vaguely been aware that Howard had someone who sent him letters that he pretended not to treasure. Steve wonders now what she was like. The only person he's ever truly believed Stark cares about is Pepper Potts, but this version of him definitely loves Maria too.
"Do you know where we are?" Steve asks, clutching at something that will be distracting but hopefully not too difficult for the kids to understand.
"Queen Alfdis's house?" Tony says, voice rising questioningly. He always answers Steve's questions like he thinks he's being tricked. At least Steve hopes that's what that tone means and not that Tony's expecting to be punished if he gets something wrong.
"Right." Steve stands up and pulls Tony up with him, lifting Tony up into his arms despite the way Tony tries to kick him in the stomach. "Come with me." He looks across at Phil and then at Clint. "You two, too."
Phil hops down immediately, looking up at Clint hopefully. Clint strides past him, getting the door for Phil and then keeping it open for Steve. He doesn't look at Phil though and Phil's shoulders slump.
Once Steve's achieved some kind of peace with Tony, he's going to fix whatever's wrong with Clint. One thing at a time, though.
There's a viewing window two floors up from their quarters. The Queen invited them to visit it but Steve's been avoiding it because he wasn't sure what the kids would make of suddenly finding all of space spread out before them (and also because it's essentially looking out over Heaven and he wasn't sure he was ready for too much of that) but he thinks now might be a good time.
Steve doesn't put Tony down during the walk up there, not trusting what Tony might get up to if Steve lets him walk around by himself. Phil trudges along beside them, Clint taking their six.
"Sure this is a good idea, Cap?" Clint asks.
Steve nods firmly. "I am," he says. He isn't, but he doesn't believe in lying to kids and he's running out of truthful reasons why they can't go home.
The viewing window turns out to take up three entire walls but Steve’s glad that the floor is opaque. He doesn’t exactly have a problem with heights but he does have a problem with endless open space below his feet.
"Oh wow," Tony yells, loud enough to make Steve's ears ring. He stops trying to squirm out of Steve's arms and reaches for the window instead, pressing his palm flat against the glass.
The sky outside is full of stars, none of them familiar to Steve, glittering as far as the eye can see.
"Are we on a spaceship?" Tony breathes.
"No," Steve tells him, "we're on another planet."
"How?" Tony asks, twisting around to look up at him. Steve knows that the wide-eyed amazement is just a carryover from looking out at the stars, not meant for Steve at all, but he still feels more connected to Tony in this moment than… Well, ever, actually.
Steve understands a lot of things, but the Bifrost is beyond him. "I'll get someone to explain it to you," he promises because Tony is smart and smart kids should always be encouraged.
"Cap," Clint says quietly beside him. When Steve looks over, he sees Clint looking worriedly at the top of Phil's head.
Steve frowns at him, questioningly; Clint stares a bit more pointedly.
"What do you think, Phil?" Steve asks.
Phil doesn't answer. He has one small hand curled in a fist against the edge of the window, his shoulders hitched all the way up to his ears.
"We're really far away from home," Phil says in a small voice.
Tony kicks Steve in the stomach again, which Steve thinks is a bid for attention before he realises that Tony is squirming to get down.
Reluctantly, Steve sets him down on the floor and watches as Tony steps up beside Phil, awkwardly shuffling up to his side until his elbow is digging into Phil's ribs.
"Do you know what happens to stars when they die?" he asks.
"No?" Phil asks after a beat. "What happens?"
Tony sighs. "How can you not know? Everyone knows. I suppose I can teach you." There's something casual and slightly superior about his tone and it's a shock for Steve to realise that he recognises that tone; he's heard adult Stark use it on him more than once.
Steve never realised before that that's how Tony sounds when he's trying to be kind.
Tony and Phil start spending more time together after that. Steve isn't sure whether that's a good thing or not, considering they don't seem to be able to go more than five minutes without bickering about something.
At the moment, Tony is attempting to steal Phil's watch. Steve isn't completely sure what Tony wants the watch for, but he thinks Tony may be trying to build some kind of robot. Or space shuttle. Or flying car.
With Tony, it's hard to tell.
"No, go away," Phil tells him, hands on his hips. "Tony, stop it."
Steve hears Clint try to muffle a laugh, badly, and rounds on him. "Aren’t you worried?" he hisses quietly. "They keep fighting."
Clint raises his eyebrows in a move that Steve has been taught means well, duh. (Of course, Natasha then had to teach him what “well, duh” means, but he thinks it's an excellent expression now that he knows it.)
"Cap," Clint says, still smiling. "That was the most normal thing I've seen since this whole bullshit mess started. Bickering is just how Coulson and Stark communicate; don't worry about it."
"Are you sure?" Steve presses. He really is starting to worry that they're being terrible surrogate parents. “I know Agent Coulson can handle Stark, but like this, Tony’s really smart and Phil just seems much more… normal?”
“Phil's plenty smart," Clint tells him, fast enough that Steve automatically starts to apologise. "Anyway, look, I don’t think you need to worry about that too much.”
Steve looks where Clint's pointing and finds that Phil has snuck around the back of the couch, where Tony is assembling and reassembling mechanical parts. As they watch, Phil slowly and carefully starts replacing each culled part with some of the weird spiky purple fruit that's very popular on Alfheim.
Tony reaches blindly for a part, exactly the same way that he does in his lab back home, and gets a fistful of soft, spiny fruit instead.
He yelps in surprised indignation and Phil laughs so hard that he falls out of his hiding place, both hands pressed over his mouth.
It's so unusual to see tiny, serious Phil giggling like a regular child that Steve finds himself chuckling too.
Clint laughs along with them both. “Baby fucking ninja,” he says, sounding fond.
Steve is torn about what he should do: on the one hand, that was hilarious but, on the other, he probably shouldn’t be encouraging an escalating war of attrition between the children.
Still, at least they're keeping each other amused. That'll have to do for now.
Things start to settle down and Steve begins to think that maybe they can survive a month of this, even if SHIELD or Thor don't manage to find a cure.
They've fallen into a routine of long breakfasts, finding ways to entertain the kids during daylight and then early bedtimes for everyone. It's probably the most peaceful time Steve has had in years.
Hell, it's probably the most peaceful time Steve has ever had.
"That's cool," Steve hears Phil say and finds himself automatically looking up. He's learned from experience to be wary of the things that Phil and Tony find cool.
He finds that Tony has stripped off his sweatshirt and is showing Phil his arc reactor. Seeing the soft blue light peeking through Tony's clothes always makes Steve do a double-take but seeing it now, shining out of the centre of his narrow chest, makes Steve's heart ache strangely.
"I know," Tony agrees proudly, puffing himself up.
Phil reaches out and taps the glass carefully. "What does it do?"
"Doctor Bruce says it makes my heart work," Tony tells him with a shrug. "Because I'm special. No one else has one."
Phil frowns for a second then reaches down and grabs the hem of his t-shirt, tugging it up. "I've got this," he says, pointing to his own chest.
Steve knows what he's going to see, but he still leans forward when Tony does. There's a thick knot of raised, dark pink skin centre left in Phil's chest, twisted and ugly and shockingly out of place on Phil's pale skin.
If Steve was shocked when he first realised that Tony kept his arc reactor when he was de-aged, he's appalled that Phil's scar from Loki's staff shrunk down with him.
“Maybe I had one of those before?” Phil suggests, tracing a curious finger around his own sternum.
“You mean like, maybe they took it out? D'you think they're going to take mine out?” Tony looks disappointed. “But it’s kind of cool.”
“My scar is cool too,” Phil protests. Steve can’t tell if he means it or is just trying to make Tony feel better, but Clint has obviously heard enough because he jumps up and stalks out.
Steve watches Tony and Phil watch him go. “He doesn’t like us,” Tony says matter-of-factly.
“I think he’s sad,” Phil whispers back. He looks up at Steve. “Is Clint sad?”
“No,” Steve assures him even though it might be a lie. “He’s missing one of his friends, that’s all.”
“Oh.” Phil sucks on his lip. “He could play with us?”
Behind him, Tony shakes his head quickly. “No, he can’t. Clint’s grumpy.”
“Clint’s cool,” Phil tells him firmly, sounding offended on Clint’s behalf.
Steve hides his smile behind his hand. “I’ll tell him,” he promises. “But Clint likes being on his own, so don’t be offended if he doesn’t want to.”
Phil nods solemnly.
Steve stands up. “I’m going to go check on him. Will you guys be all right by yourselves?”
“Obviously,” Tony huffs.
“Obviously,” Steve echoes and rolls his eyes, making sure Phil can see. Phil laughs, then tries to look apologetic when Tony glares at him.
Steve finds Clint sitting out on one of the balconies, swinging his legs and looking completely blank.
Clint doesn't say anything and Steve isn't sure where to start so he just sits down beside him, looking out into the nothingness surrounding the palace.
“I get that he’s a kid,” Clint says suddenly, “and that none of the shit that happened to our Phil means anything to him. I’m not a bastard and I’m not going to take that out on him, if that's what you're worried about.”
"I'm not.” He doesn't tell Clint that what Steve is worried about is him, but that's the truth. “He says you can play with him and Tony if you want,” Steve offers.
Clint stares at him then, before he starts laughing helplessly, covering his face for a second. “Did he say it with big, solemn eyes and utter seriousness?”
Steve feels his own lips twitch. “He did.”
Clint’s smile is soft and fond. “He’s a good kid. I just, fuck. We just got him back, you know? I’m maybe not reacting too good to losing him again.”
It’s very easy for Steve to put himself in Clint’s shoes. Far too easy. “That’s definitely understandable,” he says.
Clint shrugs. "It's shitty," he says firmly. He looks at Steve hard for a minute then raises his chin. "C'mon then, I know you want to ask about me and Phil. Have at it."
Steve would be lying if he said he didn't want to know but he shakes his head. "It's none of my business," he says firmly. "All I'm worried about is your relationship with Phil right now and I think you need to start spending more time with him. He obviously thinks the world of you."
Clint blinks. "Why would he?" he asks, frowning. "I can barely make myself fucking speak to him."
Steve takes a stab at his own version of the duh face. He isn't sure it fits this situation - he's still learning the finer points of having conversations via modern facial expressions - but something about it seems to work on Clint because he sighs.
"Fine," he says, "I'll stop being a bastard."
Steve reaches over and squeezes Clint's shoulder. "You're not being a bastard, Clint. You're hurting."
Clint's eyebrows go up. "Yeah?" he asks pointedly. "Look who's talking."
Steve doesn't have an answer for that, especially since he's hurting less right now - far away from Earth and thorough distracted - than at any point since he woke up in the ice.